[iDC] A Curmudgeonly Look at last month's Conference.

Michael H Goldhaber mgoldh at well.com
Wed Dec 23 07:30:29 UTC 2009

Dear Margaret, et al.,

  As I mentioned, good theory is more a verb than a noun, always in  
flux, never quite crystallized, yet headed towards ossification as  
soon as stated. So you have to view it on the fly. In connection with  
the conference, I thought Michel Bauwens's post of Dec. 8 "[iDC] p2p  
and the cosmobiological tradition" was a good stab, though I don't  
fully agree with it. As for an older work, though it has its faults,  
Darwin's Origin of Species still is a model. So is Wittgenstein's  
Philosophical Investigations.

Let me add that BAD  theory is no monopoly of the left or of  
humanists.  It is found throughout the sciences, in most of  
contemporary economics, and sociology, etc.

Are these standards too high to be reached by most of us? Often, but  
they can at least provide goals to strive towards. In that regard,  
it's relevant that Wittgenstein never thought PI ready to publish,  
Darwin published only under threat o fbeing scooped, and Marx (not  
exactly lacking in ego) labeled some of his work "Preface to a  
Contribution to the Critique of ....", but my point is not that one  
should refrain from trying nor from publishing so much as that one  
should not take much for granted, should examine premises, and take as  
wide a perspective as possible in analyzing one's own statements or in  
quoting others. And forming little self-praising coteries, though hard  
to avoid, is not helpful. Aim high, though.


On Dec 18, 2009, at 6:44 AM, Margaret Morse wrote:

> Dear Curmudgeon,
> Can you give us an example of the "good theory" that you describe  
> primarily by what it is not?
> Best,
> Margaret
> On Dec 15, 2009, at 10:55 AM, Michael H Goldhaber wrote:
>>  All this highlights for me that what some cleave to as “theory”  
>> does not seem deserving of that name.... I started out my  
>> professional life as a theoretical physicist, and as I changed  
>> fields still referred to myself as a social theorist. I love  
>> theory, if it is good theory — of many sorts from astronomical to  
>> zoological, from political to literary theory.  By good theory  I  
>> mean a search for new understanding , often through new concepts of  
>> what the world is, how it works, how it can work, and what it  
>> should be. Such theorizing has to be self-examining, subject to  
>> doubt and critique, always a bit tentative, and certainly  
>> constantly tested for its coherence and meaningfulness  against new  
>> ranges of experience, as well as in comparison with other theories.  
>> It should of course strive to be rational, but it can never and  
>> probably should never be that purely. To get anywhere, not all  
>> hypotheses can be put in question at the same time, yet nothing  
>> should be beyond examination. Theory must always be seeking to add   
>> new kinds of observations and predictions, examining how it  
>> comports or contrasts with other theories, whether it can be  
>> improved in its logic and strength of conclusions, where it is on  
>> possibly shaky grounds , in what ways it can be useful rather than  
>> merely descriptive or pejorative, when it is prematurely  
>> reductionist, when it can no longer easily be extended, when there  
>> are aspects of the world it has has overlooked, etc.
>> Good theory must always be — to use a favorite post-modernist term  
>> — transgressive —as well as audacious, surprising and  offering up  
>> new concepts, which lead to new percepts. But even the best theory,  
>> by the time it is articulated and typeset, is surely wrong in some  
>> significant aspects. It always must be subject to critique,  
>> modification, enlargement, and eventual abandonment. Any textual  
>> formulation of it is by no means Holy Writ. It is not to be quoted  
>> with an air of devotion, or as if by itself it stands for or can  
>> prove anything.
>> Three things are widely held to be true in the western world today:  
>> first, that we live in a more or less strictly capitalist society;  
>> second, that, except possibly for some sort of socialism, nothing  
>> other than capitalism is possible; and third, that capitalism is  
>> much to be preferred to socialism.  (What socialism is generally  
>> taken to mean — especially in the US, but increasingly elsewhere —  
>> is usually some variant of Stalinism. With this definition, if the  
>> first two hypotheses are taken as correct, a good argument can  
>> indeed be made for the third.) Many or even most participants at  
>> this conference reject only the third hypothesis, pointing to or  
>> taking for granted the evils of capitalism, while also leaving  
>> unstated and little thought how a humane socialism would work. But  
>> how do we know that our system is primarily capitalist? Certainly  
>> not just by assertion. Nor by metaphor. And equally not by  
>> superficial observation of capitalist forms and notions, for the  
>> question has to be what other forms might be present at a less  
>> explicit level. In other words, without new concepts we cannot   
>> clearly perceive what is around us.
>> That’s not how to do good theory. The humanist tradition quite  
>> honorably has taken up exact quotation, and  a desire to get back  
>> to the text, in the case of poetry —in the largest sense —  or in  
>> studying what a particular author thought or said.  Such activities  
>> are commendable, but they should not be mistaken for theory, any  
>> more than a portion of a painting or snatches of a symphony would  
>> be . Not even a  mathematical formula, not even “E equals m c-  
>> squared,”  can rest in that light.
>> All this is true of scientific theories, but it is even more vital  
>> to consider when dealing with theories that refer to the state or  
>> the future of humanity, for through its own actions the human word  
>> is in endless flux. What were indisputable “laws” cease to be, what  
>> was the state of affairs has changed. Marx himself wrote in 1851,  
>> “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on  
>> the brains of the living.” Whatever he exactly meant by that then,  
>> it has value for us only if reinterpreted to apply to now. Marx’s  
>> own work and that of everyone who came after him — in whatever  
>> tradition — is today part of a similar “nightmare.”   To live now,   
>> we must be fully awake to now, not letting the clanking chains of  
>> our dreamt ghosts entrap us in fears and formulations of the dead  
>> past., not the past of the1860’s, nor the 1960’s, nor even more  
>> recent times.
>> Best,
>> Michael
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